Vergara trial ends with a flurry of objections; closings Thursday
Vanessa Romo | March 24, 2014
“Evidence is closed,” Judge Rolf Treu pronounced from his seat in Superior Court today, thus drawing the curtain on two months of testimony in Vergara v. California.
Since Jan. 27, lawyers representing nine students-as-plaintiffs and their adversaries — the state and its two powerful teachers unions — the California Federation of Teachers and the California Teachers Association — have been arguing it out over teacher protection laws. The plaintiffs say the laws deny California school children access to a quality education by making it difficult to get rid of ineffective teachers. The defendants say a well-run school district can manage.
Over the next two days, lawyers will formulate their closing arguments and present them on Thursday, after which the case falls to Judge Treu to render his decision. At stake are five statutes governing the way dismissals are carried out, the length of tenure and the requirement of last-in, first-out when budgets force school districts to reduce the number of teachers they employ.
A victory by the plaintiffs would force the state legislature to act in the vacuum of laws struck down as unconstitutional. If the defendants win, the laws remain for now, with another challenge coming as soon as November through a ballot initiative aimed at the same issues, if proponents can collect enough signatures to get the measure before voters.
As a final day of testimony, it was the plaintiffs’ chance to put on a rebuttal case, and it played out with an inordinate level of contention and almost as many objections to questions as answers. One witness under cross-examination had no questions to answer because Judge Treu sustained objections to every one posed.
The plaintiffs called just two witnesses — Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford and an expert in using economic analysis in education, and Anthony Smith, a former superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District.
Both were used to amplify testimony of other plaintiffs’ witnesses and to refute testimony of defense witnesses. Hanushek spent most of his time on the stand defending his belief that using value-added measures of teachers is critical for evaluating their effectiveness and supporting a recent Stanford report that showed LA Unified charter schools did a better job educating students than traditional district schools.
While plaintiffs attorney Marcellus McRae steered clear of asking about an even more recent Stanford report, a survey of all California charters that showed they performed about the same as regular public schools, a lawyer for the unions, Peder Thoreen, went right at it, only to be swatted back by objections because Hanushek said he had been out of the country when the report was released, and he was not entirely familiar with it.
That struck some of the lawyers as a bit disengenuous in that Hanushek’s wife, Macke Raymond, wrote both reports.
“It is a pretty outrageous statement given that it was written by his wife,” Jonathan Weisglass, a lawyer for the defense, said during an afternoon recess. “And it, in fact, says that for the entire state of California, that the performance of charter schools is equal to or worse than traditional public schools. It’s far less favorable to charter schools than the LA study. So it’s really kind of odd and surprising that he was only familiar with that one.”
Smith’s value to the plaintiffs was offering opinions that underscored the major arguments of their side, that the state could find other ways to provide teacher protections without these particular laws.
All of them work against school children, he said, adding at the end that, sure, bad neighborhoods and other impediments to education outside the classroom can be difficult for students to navigate.
“Those conditions are real,” he said. “But the need to serve those kids is even greater.”
The day might have ended then and there. But other matters lingered. The plaintiffs tried to enter into evidence a late development in San Jose, where the school district and its teachers union — together — sought a waiver from the California Department of Education to allow the district a third year — one more than the current state law — to evaluate a teacher before granting tenure.
It is the first time district leadership and a teachers union have cooperated in seeking such a waiver, and it sent several defense lawyers scrambling for their phones, perhaps to learn more about it.
Then the defense had one more gambit. In a final stab at getting the second charter school report into evidence, they put on a brief surrebuttal case, recalling Jesse Rothstein, a professor at Cal-Berkeley and a former senior economist on the U.S. Council of Economic Advisors, whose testimony in the case Hanushek had refuted.
This was a chance for Rothstein to refute the refuter. But once he said he hadn’t read the report and “may have read the executive summary,” the objections prevailed, and that was that.